How to reform the attention economy business model of Big Tech

Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.

Shifting systems to protect attention

E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.

Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?

The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.

At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.

These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.

Working toward collective action

We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.